Kal­go­or­lie mayor says cash­less wel­fare card a 'step for­ward' af­ter work-for-dole 'fail­ure'

The Guardian Australia - - News - Christo­pher Knaus

Kal­go­or­lie’s mayor has blamed the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s con­tro­ver­sial re­mote work-for-the-dole scheme for his re­gion’s deep-seated so­cial prob­lems.

John Bowler, the mayor of Kal­go­or­lie-Boul­der mayor, said it was those wors­en­ing so­cial ills that have led him to sup­port another fed­eral gov­ern­ment in­ter­ven­tion: the cash­less wel­fare card.

“If you’ve got a bet­ter idea, I’ll adopt it or ask for it,” Bowler said. “I see this as a step for­ward.”

A Se­nate in­quiry on Thursday be­gan ex­am­in­ing plans to ex­pand the cash­less wel­fare card to new sites in Kal­go­or­lie-Boul­der, and Bund­aberg and Her­vey Bay in Queens­land. The cards re­strict the spend­ing of wel­fare in­come to limit al­co­hol and gam­bling, and has al­ready been im­ple­mented in the East Kim­ber­ley as well as Ce­duna in South Aus­tralia.

The in­quiry vis­ited Kal­go­or­lieBoul­der on Thursday. Bowler told the in­quiry he sup­ported the card’s in­tro­duc­tion, a view echoed by the lo­cal shires of Cool­gar­die, Leonora, Laver­ton, and Men­zies.

Many of the lo­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tives, in­clud­ing Bowler, ex­pressed a sense of des­per­a­tion in their search for a so­lu­tion to ris­ing an­ti­so­cial be­hav­iour, vi­o­lence, home­less­ness and al­co­hol abuse in the re­gion.

Bowler said the big­gest ben­e­fi­cia­ries of in­tro­duc­ing the cash­less wel­fare card would be those sleep­ing on the streets.

“I don’t fully know – none of us fully know, time will tell – whether this card will be the panacea we hope, or a part­way so­lu­tion,” Bowler said. “But I do know the life they’re ex­pe­ri­enc­ing is ter­ri­ble life, for them and their chil­dren,” he said.

“Liv­ing on the streets of our city, 124 years af­ter Euro­peans came here, they are liv­ing a half-life, par­tic­u­larly for their chil­dren.”

Bowler at­trib­uted the prob­lems in his com­mu­nity to the fail­ure of suc­ces­sive fed­eral gov­ern­ment poli­cies. He sin­gled out the com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment pro­gram (CDP), a work-for-the-dole scheme in re­mote com­mu­ni­ties which places oner­ous re­quire­ments on wel­fare re­cip­i­ents.

Crit­ics say CDP par­tic­i­pants, the vast ma­jor­ity of whom are Indige­nous Aus­tralians, are forced to meet im­pos­si­ble job ac­tiv­ity obli­ga­tions to re­ceive their wel­fare, and then fined when they fail to do so.

Bowler said the pre­vi­ous pol­icy, the com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment em­ploy­ment projects (CDEP), was highly suc­cess­ful, un­til it was ex­panded to cities and larger towns. “I urge you ... to do what­ever you can, when you get back to Can­berra, to con­vince all par­ties to at least rein­tro­duce a trial [of the CDEP],” Bowler said. “The fail­ure of that pol­icy is the main rea­son why we’re sit­ting here today,” he said.

He said he had raised the fail­ure of the CDP pol­icy with prime min­is­ter, Mal­colm Turn­bull, when the gov­ern­ment vis­ited the town to an­nounce it as a new cash­less wel­fare card site.

One Na­tion se­na­tor Pauline Han­son asked Bowler whether he thought the cash­less wel­fare cards should be used to pre­vent spend­ing on cig­a­rettes.

Bowler re­sponded he thought such a move hyp­o­crit­i­cal, given the amount of taxes gov­ern­ments col­lected from the sale of cig­a­rettes.

The cash­less wel­fare card has prompted op­po­si­tion from wel­fare rights groups and Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lan­der pol­icy ex­perts.

The Na­tional So­cial Se­cu­rity Rights Net­work (SSRN), in its sub­mis­sion to the in­quiry, said the card was in­ef­fec­tive, ex­pen­sive and dis­em­pow­ered and de­meaned par­tic­i­pants.

The net­work said the card un­der­mined an in­di­vid­ual’s ca­pac­ity to learn to man­age their fi­nances, em­bar­rassed and hu­mil­i­ated users pub­licly, and “re­mains in­di­rectly racially dis­crim­i­na­tory and cre­ates sit­u­a­tions of in­equal­ity and un­fair­ness in its prac­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tion”.

“It di­verts funds away from le­git­i­mate pur­poses such as ad­dress­ing in­ad­e­quate lev­els of in­come sup­port, or pro­grams and ser­vices which, with com­mu­nity con­sul­ta­tion, could be used to bet­ter help over­come chronic health con­di­tions, ac­ces­si­bil­ity to hous­ing, and un­der­funded ed­u­ca­tion pro­vi­sion,” the net­work’s sub­mis­sion said.

The in­quiry also heard ev­i­dence from wit­nesses in Ce­duna, one of the ear­lier trial sites.

The Ce­duna Koonibba Abo­rig­i­nal Health Ser­vice Abo­rig­i­nal Cor­po­ra­tion said the cash­less wel­fare card had not been a suc­cess in the re­gion.

The card had been as­so­ci­ated with an in­crease in theft and crime, elder abuse, sui­cide, self-harm, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, and hos­pi­tal­i­sa­tions, the cor­po­ra­tion said.

The cor­po­ra­tion dis­missed a con­sul­tant’s re­port on the suc­cess of the card in Ce­duna as flawed.

The Laver­ton shire pres­i­dent, Patrick Hill, said he knew the card would not fix all of the com­plex prob­lems of vi­o­lence, al­co­hol and drug abuse, home­less­ness and an­ti­so­cial be­hav­iour in his com­mu­nity.

But Hill said he was at wit’s end, and said the card would at least give breath­ing room to the com­mu­nity to work on longer-term so­lu­tions.

“We don’t want to see this abuse, we don’t want to see the kids run­ning around with dirty nap­pies on for a cou­ple of days,” Hill said.

“We’ve had enough, we’re sick of peo­ple in Can­berra telling us how to run our com­mu­ni­ties, when we see it ev­ery day,” he said.

“This is a so­lu­tion, it’s not the an­swer to ev­ery­thing, but it’s a start.”

Pho­to­graph: Melissa Davey for the Guardian

Cash­less wel­fare cards re­strict the spend­ing of wel­fare in­come to limit al­co­hol and gam­bling.

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